So. As I wrote last week, I’d met and been smitten by a smart, caring, strong, and beautiful not-entirely-non-goofball. Astonishingly, she seemed to hold me in some esteem as well. And The Knucklehead liked her style, whether it was on the couch watching TV, in the batting cage, or at the kitchen table with the Spanish homework. Knucks was delighted in my happiness, and genuinely seemed to look forward to her company. My Bride, for her part, was also enjoying getting to know The Knucklehead, and she seemed to find the quirks and charms of this growing boy that I found endearing, suited her just fine as well.
Which I was grateful for, because as seismic a shift as this was in the relationship my boy and I had created, it was nothing compared to what My Bride was taking on. Not only had she never been married before, she was also coming into the family childless. Up until the time we’d met, she’d been single and on her own. Now she was committing to a spouse and a kid. A long-past-the-toddler-cute-stage kid. A dawn-of-the-teenager-stage kid. A kid at an age where you’re not quite sure what the next day is going to bring you. An age where, frankly, they start to smell a little funny. What I was doing was taking a leap of faith. What she was doing was biting off a chunk of Joan of Arc-sized bravery.
But it wasn’t the relationship between my boy and his stepmom-to-be that had me pondering. I saw in her play and conversations with him a warmth, a humor, and an attentiveness that was genuine, and I saw my Knucklehead open up to that in kind. I saw right away that they didn’t much need me to referee their relationship; they seemed to be feeling that out and building it on their own without any help from me. That more than anything told me that this new direction in which our family was heading was the a healthy one. I found that my happiest times were making dinner for us or cleaning up after it – by busying myself with something, I got to play spectator to My Bride and My Knucklehead just… hanging out together, and it was beautiful to see. Sometimes they’d play a game, sometimes they’d watch ESPN, sometimes she’d help with his homework, sometimes they’d take the soccer ball outside. Sometimes they’d sit on the couch and chat; trading stories of the perils of the Middle School social scene, or My Bride explaining the challenges and joys of her work with her patients as a Physician Assistant (he began to see, as I did, both the heart and the caring she put into her work, as well as the scientist’s laser-bright focus she brought to medical puzzles. My sweetie is Sherlock Freaking Holmes, Dr. House, and a bloodhound when it comes to lab results or symptoms that don’t make sense). To this day, I get a warm feeling whenever the two of them are out on an errand together, or at home together when I’m out. It’s a calm, beautiful feeling of trust that I’ve left the two souls I love best in this world in good care.
Here’s the problem I had: I didn’t know how much I should involve a 12-year-old boy in his dad’s wedding. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a problem. The wedding day is a landmark day for our family, for all three of us. Of course the boy’s going to be involved.
But a marriage is something else besides a family union. It’s also a personal relationship between two adults. As important as My Bride would be to The Knucklehead, there was also the relationship between we two that was apart from that. There was a private side to our marriage that my son had no say in, no part of. As much as I influenced my boy, he would continue to have a side to his life that involved me not at all. My marriage would also have a life apart from The Knucklehead, an increasingly large part as he grew and left home. If either My Bride or I disregarded that part of our relationship, we did so at our own peril.
You see the tricky part? On the one hand who I chose to marry, if I chose to marry is none of my Knucklehead’s business. Though I am a father, I am not just a father. To sacrifice myself for the sake of my child isn’t going to do either one of us any good. A healthy dad needs to have a healthy life apart from his parenting. If I don’t, that ends up placing all kinds of burdens on my child, in addition to setting a dreary example for his own adult life. It’s also not much fair to the person I’m marrying. Or me.
On the other hand, there’s the reality that The Knucklehead in practicality holds veto power over any serious relationship I have that he’s party to. I was always amused when people found out I was engaged how often I was asked, “does your son get along with her?” Really? That needs to be asked? Setting aside the fact that someone that claims to love me but does not respect my son raises serious huge red warning flags, sirens, flares and klaxons, why would I invite that kind of stress into my life? Why not at the very least wait a few years until Knucks is out of the house? No, the boy had a de facto “no” vote, whether he was aware of it or not. At least while he was still a child in my care.
So, I wanted to involve him in the wedding, but not in a way that actively required his approval of the marriage. Not only was that a burden I had no intention of laying on him, there was a large part of it that was none of his business. This was his family, but it was not his wedding. It was mine and My Bride’s.
* * *
The actual proposal might have been the tricky part, but Knucks bailed me out on that one. As it became clear in our relationship where things were headed, I dropped a few hints to my boy that I was thinking of proposing, and he genuinely seemed excited about the idea. My objective measure of that was the number of questions he had about it, and whether he initiated conversation about my marriage; on both counts, the answer was plenty. Once it became clear that this would in no way affect his relationship with his mom (the same custody agreement we’d had since he was three would remain in place), as far as he was concerned, all hurdles were cleared. It helped in this respect that My Bride never saw herself with competing with Knuck’s mom in any way, respected her contribution in raising this wonderful kid, and celebrating the fact that he was lucky enough to have a large extended family on his mom’s side close by, where I had none. Had My Bride chosen to disrespect The Knucklehead’s mom’s side of the family, the whole marriage would have been over before it began. I was lucky to have found a woman confident enough to have no need to compete.
Anyway, the proposal. When I told Knucks I was going to propose, his immediately wanted to know the details: when, where, and how I was going to ask her to marry me, and he insisted on me texting him immediately with her answer. Honestly, I got the feeling the kid was worried I might screw it up. (His fears, as I knew at the time, were baseless. We had already talked about marriage, and while we hadn’t talked about a time frame for a proposal or a wedding date, we’d already both said “yes.” I wouldn’t have put Knucks through that emotional wringer if I weren’t sure. She knew a ring was coming, she just didn’t know how or when.) The big thing to him, was he wanted to know her answer as soon as I did.
“OK,” I told him. “In that case, would you feel better if you were there for the proposal? You know, supervising?”
“Can I?! How are we going to do this?” Note the we.
I could see where this was heading already in a 12-year-old’s imagination. “Not publicly. Nothing involving a sports arena or Jumbotron. Get that out of your head right now. That’s not fair to add extra pressure to her. This is a moment just for us, nobody else needs to be in at the start. And we’re not doing any ‘ring in the dessert’ or stupid thing like that. No tricks, no stunts. No gimmicks. This is a moment that calls for total honesty, no distractions. Besides, the ring was expensive. I’m not gunking it up.”
We talked, and decided on a proposal venue. This was late fall, and we were already planning on spending New Year’s Day together, the three of us at my apartment. My Bride was going to come over for a beignet breakfast, and we would do the proposal then. Knucks had the ring in the pocket of his bathrobe, and slipped it to me under the table She said yes. We had surprised her that morning, mission accomplished. Hugs were plentiful. The boy was beaming. We did good.
(Family lore note: It is a fact that the beignets I served that morning were the worst, indeed the only bad batch of beignets I’d ever made, something that has been gleefully brought up by The Knucklehead every New Year’s Day since. The bigger ones were almost raw on the inside, the dough still gooey. This was not, however, due to nervousness on my part, as Knucks insists. It was due to impatience on my part; I didn’t let the oil heat up long enough because I couldn’t wait to offer my beloved her ring. I maintain I was as cool as a cucumber on the other side of the pillow throughout. Just a bit giddy.)
* * *
The wedding planning was all My Bride and me. We picked a date (late September of that year), we picked the venue, we decided it was going to be a casual ceremony and reception, inclusive of children and more about socializing with our guests than about entertaining or impressing them. The work of the wedding planning, the hard decisions, we reserved for ourselves. This was our way of reminding ourselves that it was our relationship, not parenting that was the focus of the day. Knucks would not be invited on the honeymoon. He had no problem with that.
Having established that, we felt it was appropriate to include Knucks in a few relatively minor chores, and one big one.
One minor chore, for example, was in setting the placecards for the tables at the reception. We decided on a seating chart, figuring that was helpful to our guests to avoid strandees, but we didn’t want to number the tables. That was boring, not to mention a little inegalitarian. We handed The Knucklehead a stack of blank index cards and a sharpie one afternoon. “Here, come up with a name for each table. Something less boring than #1, #2, etc. Whatever you want.”
Knucks named each table after a different baseball park. Some, like Ebbet’s Field, are no longer with us. But each guest consulted a chart as they entered the reception hall, and then wandered around until they found the “ballpark” at which they were seating. Knucks had taken care to assign guests from Philadelphia, for example, seats at Citizen’s Bank Park or Shibe Field, and his cousins from New York sat at Shea Stadium. My Bride and I, Knucks decided, were to be honored by sitting at Fenway Park.*
And the big chore? I asked The Knucklehead if he’d be my best man.
I could never have asked him to do this if I weren’t convinced Knucks wasn’t on board with the wedding. There are many legitimate reasons why that may have been an inappropriate choice, but I simply could not imagine anyone else standing beside me that day. I knew that if I didn’t ask him, I’d always regret it. As I write this now, I know that that is a memory of our relationship I will carry with me until the day I die. If my love for my son clouded my judgment, or caused me to make an unwitting mockery of the ceremony, I accept responsibility for my error. I get that. But I’d do it again. Apart from asking My Bride to marry me, there is no decision I made that day that felt more right.
When I asked Knucks if he’d stand next to me that day (about a week after I’d proposed), I don’t think he saw it coming. He looked dead serious, then asked “Can I really do that?” I nodded, and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I promise I won’t drop the rings.” I laughed.
“Knucks, if you drop the rings, we’ll pick them up. I don’t care about that. I just want you next to me that day, if it’s OK with you.”
I’ll never forget that hug.
As it turned out, he was an ideal best man. I told him that the best man’s most important responsibility was to hang out with the groom the day of the wedding, keep him calm and focused, and help take care of any little things that came up. He did all of that splendidly. The morning of the wedding we went out for breakfast together and talked about what we had to do. In addition to getting dressed and showing up, we had earlier painted signs pointing people down the right roads to the wedding, as we’d chosen a venue in a GPS-proof part of rural Pennsylvania. Those signs had to go up. That gave us both something to do to stay occupied, and when we were finished, even painted one to put next to a cow field that asked, “Did you moo at the cows?” (My bride told me later when she saw that, she considered it a sign she was marrying the right person. She saw it immediately after she had mooed at the cows.) After that we went home, showered and dressed, and he assumed responsibility for making sure I had the car packed for our honeymoon trip. When we got to the site for the ceremony, he made sure he steered me to where I needed to be at the right time.
He was the perfect best man. I was nervous that day, and his company put me at ease. No adult friend could have done that so well. None knew me so well. Every time I looked at his smiling relaxed face, I was getting reassurance from the only one who could have given it to me that day. He even wrote his own toast for the reception, a beautiful speech about how I’d found the one for me.
Of the many pictures taken that day, one is etched in my mind. It’s a picture of My Bride and My Knucklehead, backs to the camera, walking down a country road. They didn’t know the picture was being taken, and Knucks has his little 12-year-old arm around My Bride’s shoulder. It’s as if he’s passing the torch. He seems to be talking to her about what he’s learned about me, what I love, what I need, and he has faith that he’s turning care of me over to good hands. That picture, to me, is my wedding day.
* * *
After the wedding, as we all know, comes the marriage. Next week I’ll wrap this series up by telling you a little about our first year together. Including the all-important first baseball road trip with The Bride.
*In return for this honor, we surprised The Knucklehead by choosing “Sweet Caroline” as the song the wedding party was introduced to – the Dave Matthews version as performed at Fenway Park, which he liked even better.